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Poetry

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  2. Poetry

Ten Poems by Kim Seung-hee

by Kim Seung-hee June 15, 2022

The Truthful Human of Pickled Radish and Bacon

  • Changbi
  • 2021

Kim Seung-hee

Kim Seung-hee is a critically acclaimed poet and professor emerita of Korean literature at Sogang University. Her life as a poet began in 1973 when she won the annual contest for new writers held by Kyunghyang Shinmun. In a career spanning almost fifty years, she has published eleven volumes of poetry in addition to two volumes of fiction. Her accolades include the Sowol Poetry Prize (1991), ARCO’s Artist of the Year Award for poetry (2006), and the Cheongma Literature Prize (2021). She received the 2021 Manhae Prize for Literature for her latest collection, The Truthful Human of Pickled Radish and Bacon (Changbi, 2021). Recent collections of her poetry in English translation include Walking on a Washing Line (Cornell East Asia Series, 2011) and Hope is Lonely (Arc Publications, 2021)

The Truthful Human
of Pickled Radish and Bacon 


A kind person 

I feel like they’re deceiving me

I want to avoid kind people 

A truthful person

I feel like they’ll find me out 

I’m always nervous in front of truthful people


I cannot be kind, I cannot be truthful

I’m afraid of people whose true intentions, or what’s inside them, I cannot tell 

People who approach me with sincere minds, feel weighty to me, heavy as truth

People who change their minds are dangerous, so are people who don’t change their minds

Taxidermied . . . No, no, that’s all wrong


I just want to become pickled radish or bacon already

A sincere mind is so complicated and multi-dimensional

But coping with a sincere mind entails the pain of your neck snapping the whole time

If, with internal organs and uterus gutted,

All that remains of pickled radish or bacon is a quiet sincere mind,

Then a sincere mind is nothing but a lofty luxury

In other words, a betrayal of the real mind, a flower pressed down like a pig’s head

 

Like Freud’s Museum, the real mind is dark and basic 

Behind the sincere mind always lurks the real mind 

A real mind is what moves the world, not a sincere mind

I don’t even want to go there, I’m afraid of hidden real minds 

A sincere mind that emerges when you snap the minds that miss the mark,

Apparently that’s called candor 

At least pickled radish is yellow to its core and bacon is striped pink and white, front and back


What do I want 

It has been a long time since yesterday disappeared

What do I want 

The sincere mind has faded and the white current of delirium fills the fridge

What do I want

I haven’t thought beyond the pickled radish and bacon 

What more, what more, what more do I want


The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)



The Lily and the Post-it 


I find out that my friend has Stage IV stomach cancer 

That it has spread to the lungs, liver, lymph nodes, that surgery is impossible

In the sonogram, it looked like white lilies had bloomed in bunches

I was in bed with my lingering illness

But as soon as I heard the name of the hospital, I jumped into a taxi and rushed there

Still, I’m grateful for the doctors, they’ll try an experimental targeted therapy,

I’m crawling toward death but they’re so gently holding me up,

I don’t want to start accommodating myself to the words “what if,” but

I noticed the first-floor lobby wall was laden with yellow Post-its

Yeah, they call it the Wall of Hope

Late-stage patients post their letters to God 

Why is hope a wall, not a door?

It sounds like a paradox, but the last wall of hope is the door of hope

Because I can read the yellow Post-it letters on the wall

I’m so grateful, God has forsaken me but we haven’t forsaken God

If we all don’t give up on God, maybe something could happen?

Yes, right, I’ll have to get up, I’ll get up 

They say I should find meaning in the pain of loss 

She has nobody, just one son, committed to a psychiatric hospital for eleven years,

And we are more afraid of living

Than dying in loneliness

I hope I don’t open my eyes tomorrow 

Yes, I feel the same way


The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)



Hall of Love 


Loving is 

An extraordinarily grand thing 

Loving, 

While living in a rented room of a grim basement hideout like the inside of a yam sack 

Is grand

Like a yam that sprouts purple blossoms and bluish veins even as its insides rot 


When you just split open a bright green watermelon

You see the insides of summer, brimming with colors of the trumpet flower 

From the summer watermelon with its chest wide open

The fantasy of a cliff and the cool smell of water fan out 

And the chill of frost and the hues of a red paradise open 


But what I see below is definitely a cliff 

I know it is a cliff

I came to a cliff

I’ve reached a cliff 

A cliff 

Though it’s a cliff 

I want to move a step further 


The wish to move a step further from a cliff 

The Hall of Love on a cliff 

It’s not a structure, it’s not romance 

What love needs is just

A grand Hall of Love on a cliff

Like a rotted yam, like a summer watermelon with its chest cut open



The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)


On Childbirth 


April 2018, at New York’s MoMA 

I saw a photography exhibit called My Birth by Carmen Winant

I had never seen this photographer’s work before 

It was a masterpiece, 

A collage of images collected and combined 

By culling photos of childbirth from old magazines and books

More than two thousand birthing photos filled two walls

Pungent with the smell of blood from tearing flesh

Uncensored reality unleashed in the scene of life and death 

The resolute figure of a pregnant women with a full-moon belly about to burst

The scenes of women crying into pillows and collapsing in their husband’s arms

Bodies being pulled out from between legs amidst Push! Push!

Scenes so wretched that Culture muffled them


The red face of an infant: like an old person’s, like a monkey’s

White, Black, Asian, Latino, 

Faces all similar regardless of race,

Have their eyes squeezed shut

Smeared with viscous amniotic fluid and dusky red blood

Faces of disgust, frowning and furrowed with wrinkles

They have urgently whirled in the cramped, narrow birth canal 

Are trembling not with claustrophobia, no, but agoraphobia

They look like pessimists,

Having to endure the looming, irremediable pains of old age, sickness, death

They’re survivors, born after slashing through another’s flesh in the war of birth

Behold, see how they wail with their fists shut tight

In this gory scene of two thousand women giving birth 


Ha hoo ha hoo . . . hoo ha ha, ha hoo

It’s as if the jagged gasps of labor breathing exercises ring throughout the exhibition

It’s violent, it’s urgent, my own breath is about to stop, the sky has turned yellow and spins,

The uterine membrane rips, amniotic fluid flows,

Push, push harder, harder, harder, push!

Push harder, the baby’s head is stuck, harder, harder, harder, push!

Push! Ha hoo ha hoo . . . hoo ha ha, ha hoo

The child churns inside the belly

Thirty-five years ago, I birthed you 

Grabbing my daughter’s arm, I feel like I’m about to hurl

From the labor pains of two thousand women, the sky swirling

In the hall next to Carmen Winant’s exhibit, 

Monet’s water lilies—filling an entire wall,

Under limpid sunlight,

Red and white water lilies, holding all the colors and light of the world, floating

The gleam of momentary light, the silent abundance

Feeling relief as if I’ve returned to the world of gods from that of beasts

I laugh and take photos in front of the sunny water lilies with my daughter

Then walk out of MoMA utterly depleted

As if I’ve traversed the crossroads of life and death


Ha hoo ha hoo . . . hoo ha ha, ha hoo . . . 

It felt as if, along with the two thousand women,

I birthed my daughter and Monet’s water lilies

The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)


Spring, Escaping Capitalism


It’s a spring day

A horse gallops on the Gangbyeon Expressway

Staying in its lane, the horse runs well enough

Above the horse’s springing body, spring haze wavers

It’s a horse from a racetrack, I hear

A horse has escaped from a racetrack and is racing on spring 

A racetrack! 

An escape from capitalism 

Laughter chases away stagnant air from the galloping horse’s lungs 

Laughter springing forth from its belly drives the horse’s lungs

Somehow today I’m troubled by nothing

Laugh, laugh

O runaway horse from the racetrack 

I’m sorry, boss, the weather is just too good today

It’s a spring day

A big car with the racetrack owner inside

Trails after the running horse 

A patrol car follows, to make sure the horse isn’t hit by a car 

No special violence or resistance from any one of them 

Yes, you can do what you want 

It’s a hazy-wavy, generous spring day


New Work by the Poet



Ultrasound Heartbeat


A dark spot in that faraway universe

Where dusky waters flow

The uterus, and its egg—

A fingernail-sized object, nestled like a black eye in the whirling current

As it grows 

It will emerge in the cloudy image 

A lone figure in the shape of a swimming fish, fluttering

Or listening to its own heartbeat, head bowed

You and I, we will be connected by the umbilical cord


You—can I call you “you”?

A not-me but not-other 

A not-other but not-me

Such an unsettled, alien second person 


How did you know to find me like this

I’m sorry 

They say you can’t choose your mother’s womb or your motherland

But my heart is miserable and lowly and always dark like this 

(Waves will swell five to seven meters high in seas everywhere)

I am always uneasy that I am me

I am always afraid that I am me

How can I bear it?

That happiness, not the kind that strangely overreacts

But that quiet and full love, like a tree planted streamside


Sound of heartbeats

Sound of hoofbeats running toward me from the beginning of time

Sound of drumbeats reaching forcefully from over a faraway hill 

Or, the sound of a train, pressing toward me from a pitch-dark universe

Sound of plane wheels rattling as they touch ground

Not a sound of departure

It’s a sound of arrival 

A sound from inside my body

From the uterus to the heart 

Coming closer, closer to me, closing in on me 

A sound beating into my heart 

The sound of your heart 

That beats right this moment 

hurtles towards my heart 

That beats right this moment


Two but one, one but two

Not-me but not-other

Not-other but not-me

Other but me

Me but other 

An unsettling entity, second person

You

The faint yet forceful, alien second person’s

Ultrasound heartbeat



Hyundae Munhak

(January 2022)



Peony’s Time 


What time 

Which time

The time when the peony blooms

What time

Which time

The time when the whole world holds its breath

You don’t exist and I don’t exist 

But wafts a distant peony’s breath

What time

Which time

The time when alone at night

Spasms lap against my whole body 

What time

Which time

Well, this kind of time

Well, this kind of precipice

Well, this kind of lightning strike

The time when you might die 

The time when you’re dying

The time when everything in the world holds its breath

And only the wiggling, solitary heart,

The peony, is left 

The time when an unknown breath sneaks by like a knife

When an unknown breath sneaks in like a knife

What time

Which time

The time when the peony blooms

What time

Which time

The time when

The damn peony drops with a thud


The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)


Freedom from Sudden Rain


There must be many types of freedom

Among them I love most 

The fresh freedom of when

I cut through a shower that drenches me to my core

A handful of raindrops

A handful of air

A handful of day

What meaning does ruin have for someone who’s been ruined before

Nevertheless

Relentless rain is 

Rain that makes pain anew

A new cloud creates a new rain

The endlessly repeating raindrops in Kusama’s paintings

A smile, thirst, a sob well up 

To make new drops to make new clouds

No pumpkins are the same 

Every day, day to day,

New rain drops newly 

Each new drop pierces a new pain

No freedoms are the same 

A new pain has a new weight 

Once ruined

To be unreined from sudden rain is to

Simply walk into myriad rains 


New Work by the Poet



Watching from the Airport 


When you go to the airport and watch

Life is so simple:

Departure

Arrival

People choose one of the doors 

And shuffle out 

Or walk in


There’s an allure in departure

And a tingle in arrival 

The cheer of air, shouted without a sound

People cutting through gravity to take off 

People holding onto gravity to land 

They go through all kinds of things

Live this way and that, then

Departure

Arrival

Shuffle out one door

 

What’s frightening about death is that heaven doesn’t issue visas

You need to be issued an arrival visa once you reach there

Since I’m not dead yet I cannot know 

But I hear if you go and can’t get an arrival visa 

You have to circle the transfer pathway for eternity 

You have to suffer a death penalty for a long time in an infinite labyrinth


The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)



Silent Night, Holy Night 


Piercing wind, the frigid winter night

Buried in darkness, a house, where an old woman lived alone

Knock knock, came from the kitchen door leading to the backyard

The old woman, dragging her legs

With icicles popping in the joints, opened the door


A white dog, with a newborn puppy in its mouth

Gave news of its birth 

To the old woman

Without realizing, the old woman kneeled and poured forward

With her two hands to cradle the puppy


Holding the puppy in her arms

The old woman walked to the front yard

Inside the doghouse, with the vinyl drapes pushed open,

Four other puppies lay, steam rising from their bodies 


You did so well, you gave birth on your own

The old woman murmured, 

Stroking the mother dog’s head over and over

She cooked delicious seaweed soup 

And blowing on the bowl, placed it in front of the mother dog with both hands

The cluster of suckling puppies hung onto the mother’s nipples


The Truthful Human of
Pickled Radish and Bacon

(Changbi, 2021)




* All poems by Kim Seung-hee in this section have been translated by Emily Jungmin Yoon.

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